Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).


Ignorance and Arrogance (8/13/14)

Haven’t we all noticed a strong correlation between ignorance and excessive (or unearned) confidence, presumptuousness and self-assurance, in a person’s supposed wisdom about life?  To be perfectly clear, I am not talking here about technical knowledge. As far as toaster ovens or Louisiana divorce laws are concerned, a moderately clever person can know pretty much all one needs to know about such subjects. I’m talking about general wisdom—say, about how geopolitics and the global economy work, or even murkier arenas, such as the mysteries of human nature and human spirituality. I suppose at my age I shouldn’t be, but I continue to be shocked and surprised by the presumptuousness and the arrogance of semi-educated, persons who have little experience outside their narrow cultural horizons. I hasten to add that any skill I have in recognizing the more carefully disguised forms of this practically ubiquitous presumptuousness I owe to years of unpleasant ‘recognitions’ and revelations of my own arrogant presumptuousness!

I live in Houston. With all the cars and the nearby oil refineries, the air quality here is about as bad as it gets in the U.S. The air pollution in Beijing and Jakarta may be worse, but the point I want to make is that when you grow up in a city that has serious air pollution you just take it for granted. It’s normal. You don’t notice it until you go away to the Andes in Patagonia or to a remote Pacific island where there are no cars or refineries—and then you come back home to polluted Houston. A similar situation applies to arrogance and ignorance. When you, yourself, are quite arrogant and ignorant, and the vast majority of your fellow citizens are ignorant and arrogant, too—arrogance and ignorance are normal. And unless we are confronted with particularly egregious and conspicuous examples of ignorance—say, with George W. Bush or Sarah Palin—or outrageous examples of arrogance—say, with Dick Cheney or Donald Trump—we simply go about our business as if nothing were amiss.

But be forewarned. There is comfort in numbers and, no matter how tough we happen to be, being alone—being left alone—tends to be uncomfortable. As long as we are all arrogant and ignorant together, things are quite tolerable, even if this collective arrogance and ignorance is actually hastening our collective demise. On the other hand, as soon as we begin to acknowledge our own arrogance and ignorance we place our happiness and well-being at grave risk, even though this is the honorable and correct thing to do.

Individuation as the Middle Way (4/21/17)

I woke up this morning with an ominous feeling that something wants to be born through my pen – and soon. Accompanying this weighty sensation is an exceptionally strong feeling of my personal insignificance and transience compared to the tiny handful of interesting ideas and perspectives I am charged with “birthing” in speech.

Perhaps in this instance it is the overwhelming feeling of smallness and ephemerality that is the content inviting exploration and expression here – at least, initially. I am aware of the psychological fact, I might add, that this same intense feeling of portentousness and gravitas has frequently attended the displacement of my ordinary (personal) ego-consciousness by the much deeper and weightier awareness of the daimon who shares ownership of this body, brain, and set of faculties that go by the name of “Paul.” In the past, before a clearer conscious differentiation between these two very distinct centers of gravity had been established, the anxiety level would be higher during such transitions. This was due, in part, to the fear that accompanies ignorance of the inner process of displacement – or the powerful shift that occurs when I would be pulled down into those heavy-murky depths. In the past, my ego would understandably react in a defensive or self-protective manner. It felt threatened by the very real prospect of drowning. But the resistances it put up only made the inevitable descent more violent and jarring.

Over the years I have learned how to yield to the pull of the daimon with fewer resistances – thus making my descents smoother and faster. I now understand better the crucial part employed by the sensation of the “annihilation” or near-total eclipse of the ego’s sense of personal importance as a prelude or preliminary stage in the descent process. It is my strong suspicion that this semi-paralyzing, annihilating energy/perspective is directed (like a blast from a stun gun) from the daimonic depths up to the shallows where, like a sunfish or jellyfish, my personal ego darts or floats about. As the ego-vessel is temporarily stunned – it is lured down into the depths where it can be usefully employed as a kind of portal or mouthpiece for daimonic perspectives, directives, and ideas. In fact, that is what is underway at this moment – as I have allowed my mind and obedient pen to sink down to “earshot range” of the deeper intelligence within.

It should be mentioned that as I surrender to the descent, the initial feelings of nervousness and trepidation begin to subside. This calming comes from the fact that the new center of gravity (of the daimon) is being contacted and stably inhabited. The anxious feelings correspond to the “in between” or transitional state: prior to my consciousness becoming stably situated in the deeper center of gravity while it is no longer anchored in the familiar personal ego perspective.

Now, such a description must necessarily strike some readers as a species of mental illness or a dangerous psychic condition. And, no doubt, this experience of being uprooted or dislodged from the personal ego-complex is typically observed in schizophrenics or those suffering from multiple personality disorder. The difference between what I experience (and which I am attempting to describe) and what the “mentally ill” person experiences must be thoroughly explored and clarified – to the extent that I am equipped to undertake such a task.

The two crucial factors here are: 1) the polycentric nature of the psyche, and 2) the conscious/imaginative work of bridge-building between these various psychic centers of gravity, or autonomous complexes. Before exploring these two factors, let us first take a look at the psychologically incomplete or ignorant standpoints of mentally ill and monolithically ego-centric persons who, together, vastly outnumber exemplars of the psychologically initiated consciousness I seek, by and by, to describe.

The mentally ill person who suffers from a splintered or disassociated psyche is the victim of a weak and easily “possessed” (or overshadowed) ego, so that the autonomous complexes, always lurking below the surface of the ego-platform, can easily break through that thin membrane and act out or speak out in ways that are clearly at odds with the ‘level-headed’ aims and apparent interests of the ‘rational’ ego. In other words, the ego of the dissociated person – as weak and uneducated (about itself and about the polycentric psyche) as it is – is easily overpowered and reduced to a mere puppet of these unconscious complexes over which it has little or no control. We see such cases of possession every day (in milder form) when family members, co-workers, spouses, or we, ourselves, succumb to irrational fits of rage, terror, jealousy, euphoria, romantic enchantment, etc. The difference between these ordinary cases and those of the mentally ill is a difference in degree, but not in kind. The difference lies in the degree of strength, stability, and self-knowledge achieved by the victim of his/her unconscious complexes and affects.

Those persons, on the other hand, who have invested all or most of their time and effort in the cultivation and defense of the ego against intrapsychic powers and influences suffer from a very different set of problems. Such persons have, in a sense, deified the ego – and reified it in the bargain – so that, for them, the psyche as a whole is disastrously reduced to the much narrower terms and conditions of individual ego-consciousness. For them, the cohesiveness, heroic strength, and authority of the personal ego constitute the supreme priority. Such persons often scoff at the suggestion that autonomous (unconscious) complexes and powers exist and/or exercise ultimate sovereignty over the ego. Such skeptics and scoffers regard those persons who subscribe to such beliefs – in the transpersonal psychic forces and factors – with muted contempt or with patronizing indulgence, as Jocasta regards those who foolishly believe in prophecies in Oedipus Tyrannus. But, in almost every case, what we uncover behind the egocentrist’s contempt and “superior” disdain is paralyzing terror of the very forces and factors they deny and disdain.

How, then, should we begin to describe the optimal (or psychologically enlightened) standpoint – one that avoids (by transcendence?) the two problematic standpoints I have just sketched? The ideal standpoint would have to straddle in between the flaccid, impotent extreme of the undeveloped ego, on the one side, and the fear-driven arrogance of God-like egotism, on the other. If we wanted to couch the problem in Taoist terms, we might say that wisdom consists in navigating successfully between “the Firm and the Yielding.”

Another way to frame this archetypal polarity between the rival demands of ‘heroic’ ego and the larger, enfolding psyche is to invoke the alchemical terms “solve et coagula” (dissolve and coagulate). The ego rises up from the oceanic psyche like a volcanic island, eventually returning to that great matrix – and to the undifferentiated state of its origins – but during that brief interim, a human life, a kind of dialogue or dialectic is possible between ego and unconscious. The fluidic, polycentric, “imaginal” psyche tends to have a generally dissolving effect upon the structures and materials out of which the ego-complex is constructed. For this reason, the strength and cohesiveness of the ego depends on the assertion of effort – or the personal will – as a protective measure against weakening and dissolution. A balanced or healthy ego, therefore, gravitates instinctively towards homeostasis or equilibrium between solidity and fluidity, while our problematic cases lose this precarious balance. The extreme (or pathological) egotist instinctively dreads the dissolving waters of psyche (and, by extension, by the fluidic imagination, the native language of psyche), while the impotent or rootless ego is forever the helpless plaything of whatever complex or affect seizes possession of it.

To illustrate these various standpoints by means of historical examples, we can look at Jesus and Socrates, on one end, and Nietzsche and Freud on the other, with Jung acting as a moderating figure in between the two sides. Socrates’ dialectical questioning operated like a solvent or mild corrosive upon the often-inflated egos of his interlocutors (on the level of intellect), while Jesus’ teachings and humble example may be seen as a solvent on the heart level. Freud and Nietzsche, and their different ways, were great coagulators and enrichers of the ego as a bulwark against the id or Dionysian disintegration (to which Nietzsche eventually succumbed). Jung, as champion of the dialectic between ego and unconscious (individuation), recognized the crucial importance of a strong and psychologically/imaginatively enlightened ego in following “the middle way” between the two undesirable extremes of egocentrism and ego-dissolution.

Addendum: it is tempting to draw a connection between pessimism and over-developed/inflated egotism – despite its displays of ruggedness and occasional exuberance. Pessimism is conspicuous and Freud and implicit in Nietzsche’s stridency, despite all his coaching on the importance of “cheerfulness.” There is little in or about Nietzsche’s tone(s) or content that can legitimately be called cheerful or joyous, let alone optimistic, when it comes to the human situation. Again, Jung’s more moderate (and moderating) example serves well: generally speaking, he is measured and balanced in his tone – neither unduly pessimistic nor excessively hopeful about the human condition – but guardedly optimistic.

Seeds and Deeds (3/10/17)

In the stillest and quietest moments of meditation, the entire nexus or intricate array of personal ties and more or less defined affiliations in which I am presently involved dissolve into nothingness. During these brief, blissful moments, all the cords of connection relax and drop into a bottomless well. Duties, obligations, commitments, desires, antagonisms, and ambivalences cease to mean anything or to exert any claims upon my soul during such moments. This liberating sense of being disburdened of these bonds of attachment, aversion, and duty does not spring from exasperation or contempt, hatred or disgust. Instead, it appears to be rooted in a mysterious but indisputable faith that everything and everyone in my life will carry on without significant deviation or disruption with or without my active involvement. The seeds of our ultimate unfoldment or fate, it would seem, are not altered in their essence by the soil and climate conditions into which they are planted. Whether and how fully the seeds mature is, of course, affected by these extrinsic factors – but in the deepest meditation it is the seed-essences we zero in on – the eternal images that appear in, but are not affected by, time, space, matter, and causality.

And then, as my serenely detached meditative state succumbs to the alluring siren song of “Paul in the world,” I watch myself plugging back into those “parts” I play for others on the stage where seeds open and display their inner necessity, as does mine. But each time I reenter Paul and his many parts it is with ever-deepening irony. Would it surprise anyone if I were to say that with this infusion of irony – or double-mindedness – the playing of my parts becomes more genuine, truer to life, and surcharged with the electricity generated by that ironical tension? Here, perhaps as well as anywhere, we are granted a glimpse of the subtle marriage between the richest meaning and strangeness. We know we have stumbled upon truth when we recognize that we are in the presence of something strange – or “strangely familiar,” if you prefer sugar in your coffee. That is why we shiver in the presence of truth. It is shocking and grounding all at once.

Coniunctio (6/24/14)

I detect a kind of trap in the Advaita path—a trap in which it is easy to become ensnared by those seekers it frequently attracts—namely, persons who want direct results right away. (John Grimes, in his last email to me, says ‘It is true that I am not interested in psychological integration and wholeness. Eventually, even if one were to achieve that, one would still have to discover the Self. As Ramana Maharshi said, ‘Why not go straight to the Self?’)

Why would Nisargadatta bother speaking about ‘ripeness’ and ‘readiness’ for realization if there were no process of maturation—of progressive unfoldment—behind such ripeness, which, as he repeatedly insists, is a crucial factor, and by no means trivial? I am perfectly happy to accept the idea of accelerated development—where the seeker does all he/she can to provide optimal conditions for growth and maturation—the ripening of the understanding and the purification of the spiritual will. But I have trouble with the idea of leaping over or by-passing stages that I suspect are unavoidable in the ‘letting go’ process—the path of return.

I am aware that—as John Grimes has informed me—there is one school of Advaitins (called Vivarana) who recognize no teacher, no student, no teachings –just the one Self—while all else is a time/space-based illusion. The other school—Bhamati—allows for levels of understanding, development, etc., as I am proposing here. Theoretically, at least, I can grasp the idea that if I were able, somehow, to find my way (or catapult myself) into an experience of non-duality, beyond time and space, mind and ego, I would instantaneously experience the transcendence of all ‘lower’ stages. Such stages of development or levels of understanding suddenly become irrelevant as soon as we transcend time and ordinary consciousness—for we are at the goal. The bridge is no longer of any use or value to us once we’ve crossed over.

I have known such experiences—even if they were fleeting—and it is precisely because I have been ‘graced’ with such unearthly inner experiences that I have spent so much time and effort pursuing and assimilating and attempting to put into practice the spiritual teachings that speak to my innermost depths.

I spoke previously of having followed Jung’s method of employing the ‘transcendent function’ as a way to bridge the gap between ‘the path of individuation’ and that of liberation. What, in more precise terms, did I mean? I realize now that I might just as aptly described the process in Hegelian terms (thesis collides with antithesis, out of which struggle emerges a new synthesis—or bridge).

At any event, the expansive and deepening process got started when I took notice of some rather glaring differences between Jung’s individuation (psychological enrichment, development, and integration) and Ramana Maharshi’s Advaita (transcendence of mind, or imagination—letting go of, rather than cultivation of, the personality).

The first stage of the work involved a radical, articulate differentiation (separatio) of the two paths. These would be purified (calcined, sublimated?) into the two poles in the middle of which I would thereafter psychically situate myself—exposing myself to the tension produced by their natural opposition. The stronger the charge generated by the opposed poles, the deeper and wider would be the synthetic perspectives and bridge-ideas produced out of their coupling. The greater their purification/clarification, the stronger the charge.

The aim during this ‘pregnancy’ or ‘gestation’ phase of the work was to remain psychically situated in the womb of creative tension, where I was obliged to patiently nurse the quarter- or half- or three-quarters-formed ‘child’ of this intense union of opposites. Had I been less experienced in this sort of inner work—like a first-time mother instead of a mother of five (or is it six??)—I would have had more difficulty ‘relaxing into’ the strange transformation my psyche was undergoing. I might have become ‘freaked out’—inducing a miscarriage or prompting a desperate abortion. At the very least, I would have gotten in the way of—rather than cooperate wisely with—the natural process. Or perhaps I should say ‘the process that is nature plus art,’ following the alchemists, who—in the more enlightened cases—were up to much the same thing—turning ‘shit’ into ‘gold’—turning flagellating sperms and ovulating eggs into divine children.

A child, being the product of both father and mother, takes something essential from both, of course. But these essential contributions from both parents (or poles?) do not remain un-modified or un-transformed in the child. And just as the child is not—and can never be—simply reducible to father or mother[1], so the synthetic ‘bridge-ideas’ born of the creative strife—say, between psychological wholeness and spiritual liberation—are never simply reducible to the terms of one side or the other. It is for this reason that I firmly resisted the temptation to dissolve Jung into Ramana’s Advaita or to ‘psychologize’ Ramana as a mere avoider or escaper of psychological responsibility and unfoldment. Although they missed the opportunity to meet face to face in 1937 when Jung ducked out of an intended visit to Tiruvannamalai, I like to believe that I am bringing about a post-mortem rendezvous between the ‘Sage of Kusnacht’ and the Saint of Arunachala here at 2046 Sul Ross, apt. 4, in 2014.

[1] Aristotle, brilliant nincompoop that he was, taught that the mother made no real contribution to the child but was merely an obliging oven for Daddy’s little dough-ball to bake in!

Two Paths (5/28/13)

The paths of purification and of wholeness lead in quite different directions, it would seem.

The path of purification has to do with the distillation or separation of clean, light, organized, and pure elements (or states) from polluted, obscure, chaotic, and mixed ones. The moral will is invoked to aid in the cleansing work of segregating the desirable from the disposable, the higher from the lower, the noble from the base. And then, after this work of moral-intellectual discrimination has been carried to a desired point, there tends to be an implicit or conscious identification with the ‘good’ and ‘noble’ elements that have been sifted out and a corresponding rejection of the abundant dross or slag that is left over from the refining process.

The path of wholeness, on the other hand, leads to a rather different response to the given materials. Instead of busying himself with the work of isolating and setting apart the pure or precious bits and throwing away all the rest, the seeker after wholeness attempts to understand and to relate himself, consciously and meaningfully, to the given state of affairs—a state of affairs that is typically messy, to say the least. Instead of striving to alter the given materials in such a way as to satisfy strict moral, rational, aesthetic, or spiritual standards of order and purity, he continually attempts to open himself up directly to the given situation in such a way as to appreciate and to embrace it as it is—to put himself into meaningful accord with that set of circumstances and conditions.

Viewed in this way, these two paths could not be more divergent in their aims. And yet, both propensities appear to exist side by side in my psyche. Some part of me longs for union with the whole—to embrace and to be embraced by that whole, as it is, while another part of me seeks just as energetically to extricate myself from this confused, turbulent, ambiguous, and polycentric condition that seems to characterize the whole. Aren’t we looking here at eros and logos, Dionysus and Apollo—the symbolic-mythological representations of these two very different, but eternally related, paths: empathetic immersion and measured or dispassionate detachment?

So then—as divergent or even as antithetical as these two archetypal factors are—don’t they always appear together, as a syzygy, as ‘twins’ joined at the hip? It would seem, then, that we cannot ‘commit’ to one path without ultimately having to confront the other. Might not our very life careers be understood as a kind of oscillation or volley between these two overpowering dispositions—where we become the tennis ball that is crucial for the actual playing of the game? It is not quite enough, then, to have two gods at either end of the court, waving their rackets back and forth, to no avail, in the thin air. Somebody—or something—needs to get knocked around, or back and forth—between the two ends of the court. And why? Is it simply to keep the two principal players (as well as the other gods who are watching from the stands) amused? Interested? Engaged? Is this yet another way of understanding human sacrifice as a necessary means of appeasing the Gods—where we become the tennis balls that make authentic volleys—authentic play—between the Gods possible?

It was Jung’s profound (and profoundly unsettling) intuition concerning wholeness that enabled him to perceive the incompleteness of Christ as a symbol of the Self. He rightly saw that Christianity—in one-sidedly emphasizing the importance of moral purity and selfless love at the expense (or to the neglect) of the darker and more ‘beastly’ parts of the psychic inheritance—led to a dangerous cultural-historical imbalance that reached a breaking point around the time of the Renaissance. This dangerous one-sidedness occasioned the compensatory reaction of that repressed instinctuality and will-to-power that we have witnessed (or should I say ‘precariously endured’) over the past five hundred some-odd years in the West. The religious symbol for this undeniable eruption of repressed (‘sinful’ and ‘worldly’) instinctuality, sensuality, and cruelty is the ‘rise of the Antichrist.’ In his provocative essay, Answer to Job, Jung explores the psychological factors behind the one-sidedness of the Christ symbol, and he makes the controversial claim that unless and until repressed evil and instinctuality are courageously and consciously re-integrated into the Self (the archetype of wholeness for the human being), authentic progress towards psychological maturity will continue to be hampered and obstructed.

Genuine psychological growth certainly includes moral development and maturation, but apparently it does not stop here! To achieve a high degree of conscious integration or assimilation of the contents of the unconscious, it is simply not enough for one to be a ‘good person.’ ‘Good’ men and women almost invariably fall into the trap of defining or understanding themselves in self-congratulatory contradistinction to ‘bad’ men and women. Thus, the ‘moralized’ ego continues to function as the privileged center of consciousness in such a person, and not the Self, which—to put it bluntly—comprehends and, therefore, transcends the moral opposition between good and evil. From the perspective of the Self—the perspective some of us are seeking as we undergo the trials (and unavoidable errors) of individuation—these opposites are reconciled or harmonized. It is in their reconciliation that the opposites, as opposites, are transcended, rather as chorine and sodium are ‘transcended’ in the chemical bond of NaCl, or salt.

On Time, Eternity, and the Puer (8/8/11)

When I was seventeen I was at a cast party for The Taming of the Shrew (I played Lucentio) and I was a bit sauced. At some point during the party I found myself alone in a bathroom and I was momentarily overwhelmed by an intuition that time is not real, that—at bottom—time is a mental construct or illusion. At that time, I lacked both the psychological acumen and the philosophical learning to make meaningful sense of this stupendous intuition—what, in retrospect, seems to have been an ‘archetypal’ experience of the puer aeternus—but such deficiencies did not prevent the monumental psychic experience from etching itself deeply into my young soul, to be recalled again and again throughout the coming years as a watershed moment in my spiritual autobiography. It was a numinous experience—a genuine and unforgettable encounter with a ‘transcendent’ idea that had floated up like an oceanic bubble—a light-filled bubble that had been released from a fissure in the depths of the unconscious. Somehow, this startling intuition had been able to bore through the insulating membrane or barrier of ego-consciousness behind which I was normally confined—and shielded from such powerful contents.[1] James Hillman writes:

To be involved with these figures (Father Time and Eternal Youth, temporality and eternity) is to be drawn into history. To be identified with either is to be dominated by an archetypal attitude towards history: the puer who transcends history and leaps out of time, and is as such ahistorical, or antihistorical in protest and revolt; or the Senex who is an image of history itself and of the permanent truth revealed through history. (Senex and Puer, p. 35)

Last night before going to sleep I began to read from a journal of mine dating back to 1989. I was reading about the struggles I was having at the time—trying to decide whether or not to stay with M.P. or to move permanently back to Houston. There was a whole lot of moving back and forth between Houston and Colorado (where she lived) at that time. As I read on, I began to feel uncomfortable for reasons that were murky to me. Was this uneasy feeling due, in part, to my ‘seeing through’ my personal account into the ‘split’ core-personality that is still there and who hasn’t essentially changed in all this time? There is something about this split core-personality that strikes me as ineradicable, untranscendable, and foundational to my very make up. I want to call it ‘puer’ because of the way this essential component of my personality has always behaved—and continues to behave. When this side of me is dominant, when I am viewing life from the standpoint of this side, not only is time unreal or illusory, but all forms and all attachments to form (including my attachments to persons, one of whom is my own ego) become shadow-like, insubstantial, little more than masks, shells, ‘roles.’ From this standpoint, there is the eternal recurrence of the same. There is no real development insofar as the eternal essences or archetypes are concerned. These are the colored chips in the kaleidoscope (another major archetypal image or insight that would have enduring impact upon my understanding of ‘final things’) that do not, themselves, undergo change—but which do undergo modifications in their interrelationships with the other chips, which are then ‘optically’ (cognitively) worked up and projected into the infinitely variable composite images we see through the ‘peephole’ of consciousness. The relationships between the (archetypal) elements which, taken together, compose the gestalt do change—like furniture and paintings continually being moved into different arrangements within a room, where the lighting is also being changed—but the elements themselves do not.

The puer, it would seem, naturally and instinctively resists getting ‘caught up’ either in the rushing gallop or syrupy flow of ‘literal’ events/developments in the temporal dimension. It rises above this sticky, enthralling river of narrative immersion, to a place where it can view this tragi-comic-farce from a ‘clean,’ detached, free perspective. But, as we see with Icarus, it winds up paying a ‘high’ price for this privileged freedom, and before long it begins to feel gravity tugging at it, as the approaching solar disk begins to melt its wax and feather wings.

The lonely heights—with the rarely experienced and rarely shared synoptic vistas of the enormous valley below—are as desolate and inhuman as they are alluring (for the views they afford the puer). It is the lure of the psyche—the anima—that tugs painfully at the wings of the spirit-boy, calling him back to the humid, shaded valley with its thick air and sluggish rivers and luxuriant foliage.


[1] It was during this period, incidentally, that my mother’s ‘normal’ ego-consciousness was being dissolved by the archetypal drama she was being absorbed into—as she suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns with psychotic episodes.